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The Monastic Way
by Joan Chittister

A FREE monthly spiritual publication with daily reflections to challenge and inspire you

Children drawing with chalk
Artwork: by Sarah Everett
The Monastic Way is for people who lead busy lives and long for greater spiritual depth.
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What Is the Most Important Thing in Life?

The hard moments in life come when we feel ourselves overwhelmed by a sense of uselessness. We see people around us doing important things, public things, impressive things. Our life, on the other hand, has been an exercise in the ordinary. We know ourselves to be ordinary: ordinary secretaries, ordinary lawyers, ordinary nurses, ordinary teachers, ordinary office workers, ordinary families. Those are the moments when we look back down the years and begin to wonder if we’ve ever done anything that was worthwhile. Those are the days when we look ahead and see nothing but grey.

They are painful periods in life but they are not unusual periods, at all. Every culture carries within itself stories of quest. Seekers everywhere search for enlightenment about finding a direction in life, about making choices in life, about giving meaning to life beyond the daily and the humdrum. Every young person floats from thing to thing for a while, trying to find a fit between talent and heart, between ability and commitment. Every middle-aged person comes to a point of decision about staying where they are or changing directions before it’s too late. Every old man and woman in the world looks back and wonders about what might have been. The questions bay at our heels day and night for whole periods in life: Am I doing the right thing? What am I really meant to be doing with my life? Is what I am doing worth anything?

But we are who we are, with the gifts we have, not the gifts we don’t. Being them to the best of our ability is what counts in the end. The ancients tell of a holy person who said to a businessman, “As the fish perishes on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water and you must return to the spiritual.”

The businessman was aghast. “Are you saying,” he cried, “that I must give up my business and go into a monastery?"

And the holy one said, “Oh no, no, never. I am saying, hold on to your business but go into your heart.”

Clearly, it is not so much what we do but the spirit with which we do it that counts. The only thing worth spending my life on is something that makes life richer, warmer, fuller, happier where I am. All the great projects in the world will not forgive my selfishness, my arrogance, my harshness with others.

We are each given only one life. The spirit we bring to it, the heart we put into it is the measure of its value, whatever else we do with it to make a living or to make a point.

It isn’t difficult to be good at what we do. What is difficult is to be great about the way we do it.

The purpose of life is one thing. It has to do with choosing to pursue the lofty as opposed to the ignoble. The purpose of my life is entirely another. That has to do with choosing to spend myself in ways that can bring holiness to the mundane. The problem is that only I can do it. How I am, the environment around me will be: full of arsenic or full of the warmth of the Spirit.

 

MONDAY, APRIL 1: The mundane is anything that has nothing to do with the pursuit of the sacred. As long as I infuse everything with a holy motive, whatever it is brings fire to the earth.

TUESDAY, APRIL 2: “Make sure that the thing you’re living for,” Charles Maynes writes, “is worth dying for.” To live only for the sake of the self is the most mundane motive of them all. It makes a monument to myself before which no one on earth would think of worshipping.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 3: There are two ways to do anything: We can do it in order to make life better for me or we can do it in order to make life better for someone else as well as for me. The first way gets the thing done. The second way gets the thing done and makes life a sacrament, a sign of the love of God, at the same time.

THURSDAY, APRIL 4: One of the most difficult lessons to learn in life is to be satisfied with who and what we are. Without the internal certainty that we are being the best of what we can be, life is not a celebration, it is a scourge.

FRIDAY, APRIL 5: Living life in a spiritual stupor is not living at all. We need to wrestle with the costs of dailiness in life in order to get out of the mundane the holiness that is hidden there.

SATURDAY, APRIL 6: To thirst for the exciting, the other, the foreign in life is to miss life where it is at its most sublime: in the ordinariness that really challenges us to greatness.

SUNDAY: APRIL 7: When we dull ourselves to the familiar, the commonplace, the customary, we run the risk of overlooking the real substance of life. We are so busy chasing it elsewhere, we fail to cultivate it here. Then we get old and wonder how we missed it.

MONDAY, APRIL 8: “Better to die of something,” Al Sharpton said, “than to die in old age of nothing.” If I do something where I am to bring life alive, all of life around me changes. Otherwise, what I add to the nothingness I hate is only more nothingness.

TUESDAY, APRIL 9: There’s no such thing as an exciting life. There’s only the life we make out of all the spirit we have to give it.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10: The nice thing about dull days is that they help us to appreciate the ones we work so hard at making special. Without the mundane, in fact, there would be no reason for parties at all.

THURSDAY, APRIL 11: Life is what we bring to its humdrum moments, not what we find there. If I close my eyes at the top of a mountain, I can’t complain that the view wasn’t worth the climb.

FRIDAY, APRIL 12: We’re not born simply to get up every day and breathe. We’re born to become something rich in spirit. “The crowning blessing of life,” S. G. Tallentrye wrote, “is to be born with a bias to some pursuit.” The important thing to remember, perhaps, is that it won’t pursue us; we have to pursue it.

SATURDAY, APRIL 13: A person without a passion for the pedestrian arts of living—gardening, music, animals, cooking, building, walking, painting, golfing, knitting, messing around in boats, or something—is not alive at all.

SUNDAY, APRIL 14: Inside each of us is the key to developing the gift of the self. The task is to discover it. “You can come to understand your purpose in life,” Marcia Wieder wrote, “by slowing down and feeling your heart’s desire.”

MONDAY, APRIL 15: It’s not what I find outside myself that makes for a life of quality; it’s what I attend to on the inside of me that makes the difference between a busy life and a meaningful life.

TUESDAY, APRIL 16: The question that measures the depth of life is, What am I doing now that will still have value for me when I’m 90? If I haven’t started to cultivate something like that yet, I may be allowing the muddle of life to smother the sacrament of the mundane.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 17: Valuing what I am saves me from the temptation to fritter life away in the frustration of trying to be what I am not.

THURSDAY, APRIL 18: It isn’t difficult to support and applaud and enjoy the gifts of others when I am able to recognize and accept my own.

FRIDAY, APRIL 19: It isn’t the work we do that makes the difference between a life of quality and a life of social clichés. It’s whether we do everything we do with spirit that makes it remarkable. “Resolve that whatever you do,” Orison Marden wrote, “you will bring the whole self to it; that you will fling the whole weight of your being into it.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 20: Everyone is needed in the exercise called human community. It’s giving what we have to it with spirit and enterprise that elevates the timeworn to the intensely important. “A useless life is an early death,” Goethe wrote.

SUNDAY, APRIL 21: We need to be about life in ways that are purposeful or day by day we lose a little more reason to live. “The soul that has no established aim,” Montaigne wrote, “loses itself.”

MONDAY, APRIL 22: “Hanging out” is what teenagers do while they’re deciding what to be about in life, but “hanging out” is not a vocation. If anything drains a life of its vitality, it is incessantly waiting for something significant to come along when the truth is that it is already out there, waiting for us to respond to it.

TUESDAY, APRIL 23: Beware of locking yourself up inside your house and then wondering why no one comes to see you. Try doing something small but personal for someone else and watch the world change before your eyes. It’s called the miracle of the mundane.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24: What we develop in ourselves is the gift that others are waiting for us to give them as well.

THURSDAY, APRIL 25: To be a truly effective person, we need to be interested in many things. That’s what makes us life-giving to others.

FRIDAY, APRIL 26: The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us. Spirit is not computed in positions and titles. It comes out of the goodness of the human soul and it adds layers of life to the souls of others.

SATURDAY, APRIL 27: “Seek always to do some good somewhere...” Albert Schweitzer wrote. “For remember, you don’t live in a world all your own.” People with spirit warm the world around them, make it loving, make it better.

SUNDAY, APRIL 28: A person of spirit magnetizes the atmosphere and turns the ordinary into the exceptional. Spirit is what enables us to see the spiritual substance under every experience, behind every event.

MONDAY, APRIL 29: Being who you are with all your heart is not to spend life getting rich but to spend life enriching a world impoverished by violence, destitution and loneliness with the spirit of a humanity most human at its most ordinary.

TUESDAY, APRIL 30: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. Exhausted by the effort of it all, they went to sleep early that night. Hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged the faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see,” said Holmes. Watson replied, “I see millions and millions of stars.” “But what does that tell you?” Holmes asked. “Well,” Watson said, “astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies. Astro- logically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Time-wise, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Why do you ask, Holmes? What does it tell you?” Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke, “Watson, you idiot! It tells me that someone has stolen our tent!”

Now that’s what you call infusing the mundane with meaning.

LET’S SHARE OUR THOUGHTS

The following discussion questions, Scripture echo, journal prompts, and prayer are meant to help you reflect more deeply on The Monastic Way. Choose at least two suggestions and respond to them. You may do it as a personal practice or gather a group interested in sharing the spiritual journey.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Sister Joan writes, Try doing something small but personal for someone else and watch the world change before your eyes. It’s called the miracle of the mundane.” Have you experienced this miracle of the mundane? Or watched the world change before your eyes? Was there an event or moment that precipitated this? Are there activities that make this sense more likely for you?

2. Which daily quote in The Monastic Way is most meaningful to you? Why? Do you agree with it? Disagree? Did it inspire you? Challenge you? Raise questions for you?

3. After reading The Monastic Way write one question that you would like to ask the author about this month’s topic.

4. Joan Chittister uses other literature to reinforce and expand her writing. Find another quote, poem, story, song, art piece, or novel that echoes the theme of this month’s Monastic Way.

5. Sister Joan answers this month’s question, “What is the most important thing in life?” this way: “Being who you are with all your heart is not to spend life getting rich but to spend life enriching a world impoverished by violence, destitution and loneliness with the spirit of a humanity most human at its most ordinary.” How would you answer the same question? What’s the evidence in your life for your answer? How does that answer challenge you? How do you celebrate who you are in your life?

JOURNAL PROMPTS

Prompt 1: Here are a few statements from this month’s Monastic Way. Choose one that is most helpful to you and journal with it.

  • One of the most difficult lessons to learn in life is to be satisfied with who and what we are.
  • A person of spirit magnetizes the atmosphere and turns the ordinary into the exceptional. 
  • If I close my eyes at the top of a mountain, I can’t complain that the view wasn’t worth the climb.

Prompt 2: Spend a few minutes with this photograph and journal about its relationship to this month’s Monastic Way. You can do that with prose or a poem or a song or....

SCRIPTURE ECHO

“I came to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already blazing. ”

—LUKE 12:49

PRAYER

On Resting

One more day to serve
One more hour to love 
One more minute to praise 
For this day I am grateful 
If I awaken to the morning sun 
I am grateful.

Mary Lou Kownacki